From Iceland — OUT OF BALANCE:


Published September 3, 2004


For this reason, it could be argued that an intrepid drug dealer would come to the conclusion that since he faces the same sentence for a kilo of hash as he does for a kilo of cocaine, he might as well have a go at trying to smuggle in the more profitable (and more deadly) substance. In effect, this kind of sentencing actually encourages drug dealers to bring more dangerous substances into the country. Despite this, due to stiff sentencing and government funding, the drug supply seems to be dwindling.

Are drugs worse than rape?
Compare this to sex crimes in Iceland: reported rapes in Iceland are well ahead of every other Nordic country – between 300 and 400 women visit rape trauma centers in Iceland each year. Yet there are no figures available on how much money the Icelandic government has spent trying to prevent rape and child sexual abuse. While the sentence for rape in Iceland is one to sixteen years, the Icelandic Penal Code reserves that punishment for rapes of threat or force alone. Rapes of coersion and child sexual abuse carry a sentence of only zero to six years. The vast majority of the time, however, the sentence will be a fine – log onto the Iceland Supreme Court website and one can see fines of a few hundred thousand krónur meted out to people who have been convicted of sexually abusing children.

Drugs, while certainly damaging to both mind and body, are nonetheless bought and sold on a foundation of supply and demand – consent is the essense of the drug trade. There is, of course, no consent involved in rape or child sexual abuse. There is something very wrong with a legislative and judicial system which punishes more harshly crimes of non-violent consent than it does crimes of violent sexual force. In an effort to try to understand why the system is set up in this way, I talked to the people who fight in the trenches of the legal system: the lawyers.

Adding insult to injury
Herdís Hjálmarsdóttir is a prosecutor with years of experience in drugs and sex crimes: “In my experience,” she said, “of all the rapes which are even reported to the police, I’d say only about 25% actually make it into court. Of those, only half end in a conviction.”

According to Icelandic law, a prosecutor has the right to decide that a sex offense case won’t result in a conviction and can refuse to take it to trial – a right most lawyers in the world have. But what is disturbing is that once a prosecutor has rejected a case, the victim can never file the suit again with another prosecutor. It wasn´t until 1999 that a victim even had the right to have a lawyer present as council at all times, such as during police questioning. Even if a prosecutor does take on a case, it’s ultimately the police who decide whether or not the prosecution can have access to the accused´s criminal file and how much of it the prosecution may see. Conversely, defense has unlimited access to any and all information regarding the victim. Even if after all this a conviction is reached, not only does the accused almost always end up just paying a fine, but insult is added to injury in that victims must pay out of their own pocket for any therapy they might require as a result of their trauma, unless the victim is a child. Yet even in the case of a child, state funded therapy is temporary, and there is no follow-up done to see how the child is adjusting to adulthood.

Mandatory jail time?
“I personally don’t think longer sentences are the answer,” Herdís adds, “but I would like to see heavier fines. In all fairness, Iceland does have the harshest sentencing for sex offenses in Scandinavia.”

Katrín Anna Guðmundsdóttir, from the Feminist Association of Iceland, expresses similar concerns. “One of the biggest problems for me is the lack of sentences,” she says. “When rapists and child molesters walk away with a fine, it sends a message to victims that the courts won’t protect them. We need to lengthen sentencing for sex offenses.”

This may explain why only ten percent of the victims of rape and sexual abuse who got to Stígamót, a rape crisis centre in Reykjavík, will end up reporting the crime to the police. Other factors, Katrín says, would be the prejudice that many rape victims feel is directed towards them should the case not end in a conviction, as well as the fact that most victims know their attackers personally, which makes it extremely intimidating to take them to court.
The state is simply not doing enough. Mandatory jail time for conviction of a sex offense is not unusual in the world, nor is state-funded therapy and follow up for victims, as well as state funded sex offense education. Iceland can and should set an example with such measures not only for the rest of Europe, but for her own people.

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